How To Win Friends

I recently read Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How To Win Friends and Influence People. I had long heard of it, and long had a vaguely negative impression. I think I presumed the book was to help insincere salespeople and glad-handlers manipulate folks. Since I was sincere, it didn’t apply to me.

Reading the book itself, however, I find that it is well-written, and quite valid, general, and sincere. It gives sound advice on how to actually make people really like you. Furthermore I notice: there is little in the book that most people don’t already know. Winning friends is obvious: be nice, pay attention, figure out what they want and get it for them. People are pretty self-centered, so you mostly win them by making them feel important and good about themselves.

I’ll also bet that reading the book actually helps people win more friends, even when they already know it all. Because we usually make up comforting excuses about why people don’t like us. Others feel jealous of us, are rivals to us for something, have been biased by slander from rivals, etc. And it is comforting to assume that folks who succeed must be insincere manipulators. Reading the book reminds us that winning friends is straightforward, but takes a lot of work, work that we just don’t usually put in.

One story in the book was about a US president who won over someone by spending lots of time on them, in part by making the Federal Reserve Board wait an extra thirty minutes. Which makes clear that there is a budget constraint: you can’t lavish all that attention on everyone.

The book gives lots of examples of folks who succeeded by using his principles to make particular others like them. But a bigger key to their success, I suspect, is knowing who exactly to woo when. Invest a lot in winning the wrong friends and you won’t have much to show for it. And since part of what people want from friends is status, if you don’t have enough to offer, you might just be out of luck.

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